Olli Soikkeli: A Guitarist’s Journey from Finland to New York

Olli Soikkeli is from a family of nonmusicians. His parents, however, tried to interest his two older brothers in playing some instruments, but the only result was for a few years “a pretty crappy guitar’ gathering dust in the house. When the 12-year-old Olli showed interest in it, they quickly got teachers for him. He toyed around for a few years until a summer gig at a local restaurant proved inspirational, “For three months I was washing dishes and decided, ‘Okay I have to practice so I don’t have to do this ever again.’”

One influential teacher, Kari Pääkkönen, was a locally famous guitar player. “He had been playing since the 1960s. He was really interested in Gypsy Jazz and was trying to get someone in town to play that music with him. After a while the lessons just turned into learning tunes so I could play rhythm for him in small gigs. He gave me CDs of Django and The Rosenberg Trio, and I really fell in love with the music and stopped listening to anything but Django stuff. It was basically a 24-hour thing; the music was playing all the time in the background, even if I wasn’t practicing. At that time, I was practicing four to eight hours a day. Soon, I was doing shows all over Finland and I decided this is what I wanted to do.”

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Naturally, as more people became aware of his talent, travel expanded and he soon found himself performing with visiting American musicians. Impressed, several of them urged him to check out New York. Thanks to Finnish jazz violinist Vitali Imereli, in 2011 he made his first trip and he met and played with a number of great American musicians, such as Bucky Pizzarelli.

“What a gentleman. He was the master of the rhythm guitar and an overall class guy.” When he took part in a “Django in June” festival in Northampton, Massachusetts, he met and impressed violinist Jason Anick. Olli said, “We played together and hit it off musically and personally.” More significantly, Anick added, “Until I met Olli, I hadn’t found anyone I really wanted to start a project with.”

Soikkeli soon had to return to Finland, but many in the American Django community continued to encourage him to visit again, and promised to help arrange gigs. In 2013 he did return and played with Anick around Boston. He recalled, “At one event, they wanted a band name and Jason just put ‘Rhythm Future Quartet.’ We got nice videos from those shows and we put them on YouTube, so it was obvious that was going to be the name.”


In 2014 he finally moved here, because as so many musicians from all over the world have said, New York City has a special allure. A wit once said that New Yorkers, “Walk like there is a free meal in front of them and a cop behind them.” The city was a dizzying change for the young guitarist. “I was overwhelmed. I had never seen high rise buildings or anything that busy. I lived in Helsinki for three years before coming to the US, but coming from a small town like Nurmes, it was pretty wild. Then, when you are a musician, every night you meet new people. There are so many amazing players in this town, it is really fascinating to be here and work.”

The violinist said, “Olli’s moving to New York City from Finland was a big thing, so it was good to get the ball rolling with a project right away. We formed a group, did our own arrangements and had our own vision. We booked a few tours around New England and it really resonated and took off. We played maybe 300 shows together in our first three and a half years.”

Guitarist Olli Soikkeli (courtesy www.ollisoikkeli.com)

Soikkeli added, “Jason knew Greg Loughman, the bass player through the Boston scene. When we started, Vinny Raniolo was the rhythm guitarist, but Vinny was so busy with Frank Vignola we had to find someone who could do all the dates. Luckily, Max O’Rourke came to study in Berklee.” Years before, while O’Rourke was still a teen, he had impressed Anick with his playing, now he was even better and a good fit for the group.

Anick said, “We had our own booking agent to help get our name out there more. We had a video clip that went viral with about 3,000,000 views. That was big in getting our name out and getting fans all around the world.” Soon they were touring all over. A tour in Alaska lasted over two weeks and had them hopping from venue to venue in a prop plane that was so small Olli had the co-captain seat. Anick said, “The crowds were great, appreciative, respectful and enthusiastic that we were traveling to some of these small places where you can only get there by plane.”

When Rhythm Future wasn’t performing, the young Finn satisfied other interests. Sometimes he would hop back to Europe to freelance mostly with guys like the great guitar player Paulus Schafer. Here, he did a good number of gigs with the Avalon Jazz Band and many others as his reputation spread. But he noted, “I’m also a huge fan of the American jazz guitar tradition and the sound of the Oscar Peterson Trio or the Nat King Cole Trio.” He quickly found that the clubs where he had displayed his virtuosity with Rhythm Future were just as anxious to feature him performing other types of jazz.


Soikkeli also won critical acclaim such as Will Friedwald’s positive review in the Wall Street Journal lauding him as “a riveting Finnish Guitarist.” Above all, however, Rhythm Future’s gigs dominated his calendar. The band’s success allowed them to make three CDs in six years, but any constant repetition can be problematic and touring for weeks at a time also takes a toll. “We were so busy with Rhythm Future for so many years, I felt that I needed a little break from it. I wanted to focus on the arch top, and I felt that I was not progressing as I wanted to.” He began stepping back from the group around the time the emerging Covid pandemic began to dominate the news.

In the Spring of 2020, while touring all over the United States and Canada with International Guitar Night, he got to do some solo guitar performing. He came back to New York just as Covid closed everything down. Unable to perform, he used the opportunity to build his solo guitar repertoire, but as the lonely days dragged by that began to seem a pointless effort. “I just stayed home for three months and pretty much went crazy.” With his visa about to expire he left for Finland. “It was amazing. There were very few people on the plane, so I had all this space for my guitar and I pretty much brought everything as I wasn’t sure if I was ever coming back.”

By the Spring of 2022, however, Soikkeli was anxious to return to New York. “There wasn’t that much going on in Finland for me.” He returned here and, “I started picking up a little bit of work, but there had been a lot of changes in the whole industry. A lot of people took different jobs or moved to different places so it took a while to get stuff going.” As a result, he has been going back to Europe more and renewing his performing with some of the great Django acolytes.


“After taking that step back,” Soikkeli said, “I feel that I have something original to say in that style. I just did a bunch of gigs in France and the Netherlands with Paulus Schafer, Moses Rosenberg and some other European masters of the Django style. They said I have something meaningful going on. I can definitely say that it is just the fact that I have been checking out other stuff. Coming back to it now, everything blends together.” He plans to record another disc in the Django style with some of those masters. “Nous’che Rosenberg has agreed to play rhythm guitar for the whole record. When it comes to the rhythm guitar there is him and then there is everybody else. He is the master. Stochelo Rosenberg will also be part of it.”

Soikkeli’s stylistic blending can be heard on his 2022 CD Lentement Mademoiselle. He is joined once again on it by musical partner pianist Marian Petrescu who displayed his absorption of the Oscar Peterson style of playing previously on Soikkeli’s impressive CD Trio. He also continues to expand his musical interests. The CD Choro Novo is his newest effort and his second with Brazilian guitarist Cesar Garabini. While he has a long-standing love of that Brazilian music, he only began playing it in New York after he met Garabini.

At a recent trio gig I caught, he played a set of classic standards, such as “That Old Feeling,” but peppered them with a few less familiar works like “Lennies Pennies.” No matter what he was playing, it was always captivating and drew strong and sustained applause for the appreciative crowd. As of now, the talented Finn likes his current routine of touring from his New York base and recording both with his trio and with Garabini both here and in Europe.


Visit Olli Soikkeli online at www.ollisoikkeli.com.

Schaen Fox is a longtime jazz fan. Now retired, he devotes much of his time to the music. Write him at [email protected].

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